Kathryn Jean Lopez: The media was fascinated when hapless midwestern Ohioans did as Rush told them and voted for Hillary? Who will they take their orders from next?
Denis Boyles: I don’t know, but probably not Air America. Ohio’s kind of a miniature U.S.A., isn’t it, with all those blue precincts in the northeast, around the big cities, while the rest is pretty red. The conventional view is that Rush pushed the robot button and his followers all went into action. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Ohio voters have put up with enough corruption and mischief from both parties that now all they want to do is have fun. That bodes well for Obama, as long as nobody takes him seriously.
Lopez: How might the November election look in the middle of the country?
Boyles: Well, Nebraska’s going to vote Republican, but everyplace else is up for grabs. Bush fatigue has swept the prairies, too. Midwestern conservatives are pretty fed up with W.
Lopez:So what’s so superior about Nebraska? Next you’re probably going to tell me that there’s nothing wrong with Kansas. I’m a native New Yorker, you know. So I may be a hard sell.
Boyles: One of the reasons I wrote this book was to help people who live in New York, New York, to understand a little about people who live in York, Nebraska, and in other small towns in the Midwest. I know New Yorkers who can direct you to their favorite cafe up some tiny ravine in Provence, but can’t find Concordia, Kansas, on a map. Yet there’s a lot to be learned from the Midwest. Actually, it’s too bad presidential candidates can’t go door-to-door in Nebraska — not only would the walk do them good, they’d also find the values of the Midwest useful in understanding how to speak to Americans everywhere. Out there (as most New Yorkers think of places like Nebraska), people appreciate common-sense solutions and policies, things that reflect qualities like self-reliance, tenacity, and resiliency, because those are the qualities that made it possible to settle and survive on those hard plains in the first place. Those are also the qualities that most of us like to think describes the American character, so if a politician can learn how to appeal to a Nebraskan, the chances are he or she will have gone a long way toward appealing to the rest of America — not those who live and vote in the deep blue areas of the country, maybe, but most other people in most other places. And obviously those are the voters any successful candidate is going to need to attract in order to win.
Lopez: What’s wrong with Thomas Frank?
Boyles: Nothing. I hope he’s the picture of good health. He’s a stylish writer and I enjoy reading him. The trouble is he just doesn’t seem to know Kansas once he leaves Kansas City (most of which is in Missouri anyway). His book What’s the Matter with Kansas? was loved by liberals who didn’t know much about Kansas, either — because it reinforced their view of all those rubes out there in what they like to call “Jesusland.” They needed to believe that wily social conservatives had “won the heart of America” by tricking all those poor peasant folk into voting against their best interests. And I know that when you New Yorkers fly over Kansas, the place looks red because it generally supports the GOP presidential candidate. But on the ground, things turn blue in a hurry.
The fact is, in Kansas, liberals are winning, while conservatives almost never win statewide races. For 35 of the last 50 years, there’s been a Democrat living in the governor’s mansion in Topeka. (Kansas has never had a conservative governor; the closest the state ever came to getting one was when they elected Joan Finney, a maverick Republican who had to become a Democrat in order to get elected.) Conservatives can sometimes win local statehouse seats and the state school board goes back and forth between conservatives and liberals, but the state’s current governor, Kathleen Sebelius, who would be considered liberal in Massachusetts, is very popular in Kansas. The last couple of Republican governors now serve in her administration.
There are several reasons for this. Partly it’s because “moderate” Republicans (it’s a Kansas conceit; a “moderate” Kansas Republican would be a liberal anyplace else in the country) will gladly vote for a Democrat, but would never, ever vote for a conservative Republican. Partly it’s because the state GOP is lazy, deeply divided, unimaginative, and largely ineffectual. Partly it’s because conservatives are seen as shrill and angry by the state’s press. Partly it’s because the media in Kansas gives Sebelius a great deal of cover, rarely asking difficult questions or reporting anything that might suggest just how out-of-place her politics are. And because coverage of state news is so incidental to most people’s lives, and because it’s covered so inadequately in the state, most Kansans just don’t know how liberal Sebelius is. She just seems nice, and in a Midwestern politician, nice is always nice.
Meanwhile, Kansas is the late-term abortion capital of the world, a place where the government owns gambling casinos, and where millions and millions of dollars from the abortion lobby, the gaming lobby, and the fetal stem cell research lobby have swamped the state and have had a huge impact on its politics. One example: After a local TV station ran a story about rats in the hallways of one abortion clinic, the state legislature passed a bill requiring health clinics to meet minimum standards for hygiene. Sebelius vetoed the bill.
Democrats and liberal Republicans run Kansas (and its newspapers) and always have. You have to live a long way from Topeka to believe Kansas conservatives have “won the heart of America.” Frank’s complaint seems to be that conservatives just won’t shut up. A better question, especially after Torricelli, McGreevey, Menendez, and Spitzer is “What’s the matter with New York and New Jersey?” Or anyplace where liberals apparently have won not only the hearts but also the minds of voters who seem to have lost the ability to reason on their own. Midwesterners have no problem voting for a liberal Democrat like Bob Kerrey, but there’s no chance New Jersey or New York will be sending a conservative Republican to Washington any time soon.